Practicing meditation on a regular basis alters the activity and structure of the regions of the brain that are involved in the development of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. This may explained the fact that meditation significantly reduces the risk of their occurrence – scientists believe.
Karolina Zarychta, health psychologist and psychotherapist at the Center for Applied Research on Behavior and Health, University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Wrocław reminded in an interview with PAP that the work of scientists on meditation focuses, inter alia, on the mindfulness method.
“Research has shown that it is effective in reducing the level of stress, anxiety, improving mood and in the treatment of many disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia). Studies confirm the positive effect of mindfulness in dealing with chronic pain” – said the expert.
These effects are associated with changes in the basic psychological processes, such as improved attention, mental acuity, lower emotional reactivity and lower self-image distortion.
Zarychta explained that mindfulness is a method derived from Buddhism and meditation practices. It is an approach that proposes aware, non-judgmental view of the reality and focusing on the present – on the “here and now”. This helps a person learn to recognize own emotions, thoughts and body sensations, accept them as they are – without identifying with them, evaluating them, and attempts to modify them.
“An example would be a person who is experiencing extreme anxiety and has always tried to deny or avoid it. Using mindfulness, the person learns to recognize and accept it as an emotion that comes and goes, does not last forever. In this way, this person has a chance to break free from automatic and non-functional patterns in his or her life” – explained the psychologist.
Scientists are trying to understand the neurobiological mechanisms responsible for the positive effects of meditation on mental health. For this purpose, they use brain activity monitoring and imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The previous observations suggest that one of the most important areas of the brain, whose function is changed under the influence of meditation is – relatively little known – so-called default mode network (abbreviated DMN).
Dr. Andrzej Wnuk, author of neurology blog (lucidologia.pl), explained that DMN is a network of specific brain structures, whose synchronized activity decreases during tasks that require focusing on external stimuli.
Areas belonging to the DMN, including parts of the medial prefrontal and temporal cortex, midline and lateral-medial parietal cortex, are reactivated when, for example, we return to a state of relaxation and think about something other than the currently executed task. “We say that we have wandering thoughts, head in the clouds” – explained Dr. Wnuk.
He added that although it would seem that the brain rests – hence the DMN is sometimes called the task-negative network – in fact intensive processes of processing and integrating information occur. These processes are crucial to the proper functioning of the brain and possibly consciousness, including self-awareness, they are also linked to autobiographical memory.
In the paper “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”, published in the weekly “Science” in 2009, Matthew Alan Killingsworth of Harvard University and colleagues show that the so-called wandering thoughts is a very common activity of the brain (occurring for almost half of the period in which we do not sleep), and, interestingly, it is associated with a lower sense of happiness.
Other research teams have linked the changes in the operation of the network to the occurrence of anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Functional changes in the DMN may be behind the effects that meditation has on man” – said Dr. Wnuk.
In the article published in 2011 by the weekly “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”, Judson E. Brewer of Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven (USA) and colleagues presented the results of a survey of 12 right-handed people who had been practicing mindfulness for over 10 years, and 13 healthy subjects who had not done that. They were matched for age, sex, race, education, and even employment status.
Those meditating for many years admitted that they were experiencing a wandering mind less frequently. At the same time, studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging also showed that in these people two DMN components were much less active, i.e. the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). According to the authors, this suggests that changes in DMN activity caused by the practice of meditation reduce the phenomenon of wandering thoughts.
Because these changes are also visible between meditation sessions, researchers suspect that meditation generally contributes to the fact that we focus more on the “here and now” and less on ourselves, our own emotions and stimuli received by the body.
Dr. Wnuk reminded that research on volunteers who practice meditation allowed to observe other functional changes within the DMN. Some of them reflect the possibly beneficial effects of meditation on the emotional resources and conscious perception of the current situation, which in the long term is associated, for example, with better mood, reduced stress level and a decrease in the symptoms of depression. Other changes may in turn be responsible for the increase in the distance to the emotional self-assessment, which in turn can lead to the acceptance of the person’s own thoughts and feelings, explained the neurobiologist.
The studies focus primarily on the beneficial effects of meditation (both secular and religious) on mental health. There are also indications that regular meditation has beneficial effects on physical health, as it can alleviate inflammatory conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, asthma, cancer, and even slow down the aging of cells. However, further research is needed to confirm this.